Recognized For How They Perceive

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Elliott Taylor spends about 15 to 20 hours a week in the dark room developing photos. It is not uncommon for him to enter the dark room around 6 p.m., find himself in a productively creative groove, and leave around 5 a.m. Cary Wander spends around 50 to 65 hours a week in the print studio, but he said he finds it to bemeditative work.

“This group walks in with a level of maturity, so they’re really open to listening, learning and asking questions. You’re not just speaking at someone, but there’s this reciprocal conversation going on,” said gallery manager Mark Shunney.

The Irwin Scholarship, the most prestigious award in the art department, grants 12 recipients a $2,500 scholarship and the opportunity to be professionally displayed in three Porter art galleries. UC Santa Cruz arts faculty nominate 24 students, review the student portfolios and narrow the group to the 12 Irwin scholars.

“I remember being a freshmen and walking by the [Porter] quad and seeing a bunch of people gathered. I stopped and listened to the speeches and checked out all of this really inspiring work, but at that time I didn’t even know what the scholarship was,” said Irwin scholar Courtney Hanson.

All of the recipients are now graduating seniors, except Althea James, who is a third-year on track to graduate a year early.

“It was an acknowledgment, especially that you’ve been working hard, or put in your best effort. It also comes with the caveat that there are a lot of people who work really hard who don’t get it. For everyone who gets it, there’s another person who could totally be qualified for it,” said Irwin scholar Eric Harrod.

Some of the art displayed in the galleries will be seen by the public for the first time, and some of it is older art that has been produced throughout the recipient’s time at UCSC. Because of this, the media and messages displayed in the gallery are varied, ranging from film to printmaking. There are abstract paintings, metal sculptures and photography.

“A lot of the people who are really successful in art after college, at some point or another, figure out what their deal is. They figure out who they are and what that means for their work,” Harrod said. “It’s so hard to do that.”

One of Harrod’s pieces in the exhibit, entitled “Citywalks,” is indicative of his artistic trajectory. Harrod walked through the longest streets in New York City and San Francisco wearing a sandwich sign reading, “Hello (city), speak and I will listen.” He filmed peoples’ responses to the sign with a GoPro camera and edited them together.

“I feel this need to go beyond myself, and make it for and about other people. Without that, it becomes a sort of closed system,” Harrod said. “It becomes a sort of dead repetitive loop of energy that doesn’t go anywhere.”

One of the threads connecting these 12 artists is they have all been recognized for their focus and for knowing their medium well enough to extract meaning from it in new and interesting ways. Harrod is well-versed in film, having worked on sets in New York City for a year.

Elliott Taylor, another Irwin scholar, deals primarily with analog photography, and has for about half of his life.

“The recognition means my work and commitment is starting to pay off in certain respects — where my visual and theory investigations led me in my time here is interesting and valid in a certain sense,” Taylor said.

His work in the show deconstructs the popular tenets of analog photography, namely that a photograph’s negatives — the image with inverted colors, which is necessary in reproducing photographs — are precious items. He takes self-portraits and manipulates the negative with a razor or dental tool, then reproduces that image, manipulates it further, and continues, until the final image is entirely black. Essentially, he chronicles the photographs’ destruction and thereby reassures that those exact images will never be reproducible.

“As soon as I allowed myself to fail, and that was okay, it freed me up to make far more challenging and interesting art,”  Taylor said. “It didn’t always work out, but I see every failure of an idea as an elimination of a possibility.”

Walking through the unfinished galleries last week, there was a sense that the art on the walls was something like the greatest hits, that they were the prized possessions of long explorations in the given media. The artists are all very stylistically different, telling nuanced stories through visual representation. Yet they also possess a necessary air of ambiguity, like Courtney Hanson’s photography series, titled “Girls With Guns.”

The series includes several black and white portraits of women in domestic settings holding large guns. Hanson said she wanted to examine how women are often portrayed as in need of protection, yet this protection takes the form of further control over their bodies.

“I was trying to see if it was possible for me to photograph a female-bodied person with an assault rifle and have it not be sexualized. [The photos] are very complex for me. I love them and I find them very problematic,” Hanson said. “I know I can’t control a lot of the readings people take from them, but it’s been pretty successful as far as provoking some interesting and important conversations.”

Because the 12 artists engage in such varied topics, it was really difficult for them to come up with a press release, or something encapsulating all of the artists’ work while respecting their differences. Aside from some thematic similarities, Elliott Taylor said the time and place these artists have all shared is one unifying influence.

“Santa Cruz is a university that is going through some changes. There’s a lot of tension between the more administrative desires and student desires, and all of the artists are very aware of this tension,” Taylor said. “Even though the work doesn’t necessarily directly address these issues, it’s an interesting time to be a student here.”

In addition to their shared academic climate, the artists possess a heightened sensitivity toward identity, whether they are imposed or stifled identities.

“Walking through the gallery now and seeing things start to come up, it’s a lot about identity, but it’s also about the larger institutional and structural issues we’re grappling with,” Hanson said. “Not solely individual identity, but social and political norms and phenomena and interrupting them, playing with them and redefining them.”

Having finely tuned their artistic voice, these artists are wrapping up their undergraduate careers and are looking to expand outward, creating art that meaningfully interacts with the world.

“As people mature they stop thinking about the technical,” said Irwin scholar Eric Harrod. “They start thinking more about what is my meaning, what am I expressing? What experience am I making for other people?”